Midwives Honor the Sensuality of Pregnancy and Birth
by Shafia M. Monroe
© 2008 Midwifery Today, Inc. All rights reserved.
[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 85, Spring 2008.]
Photo by Alejandra Sarmiento from the book Beautiful! Images of Health, Joy and Vitality in Pregnancy and Birth by Jennie Joseph (2007) reprinted with kind permission of Jennie Joseph.
People have often said to me, “You must really love babies to be a midwife.” And “Wow, how you can stand all that blood?”
Of course midwives love babies. We work hard to provide care to ensure that a woman has a healthy pregnancy and thus a vigorous baby. But in actuality, midwives love women. We love to see them happy during their pregnancy, supported during their labor, honored in birth, sustained while breastfeeding and nurtured as new mothers.
My role as a midwife is to help a woman and her partner celebrate her newness and embrace her sensuality.
The Western culture has taken birth from our view and put it in a place that is hard to find. On television we see birthing women often in hysteria, sweating profusely, out of control and not looking pretty. Pregnancy has been mystified as nasty and not a nice thing; it is thought of as a shameful and an unclean act.
Although birth is physical, birthing women are beautiful. As a society, we must reclaim birth as normal, stunning, sacred, sexy and exotic. When the pregnancy hormones come alive, a woman’s nipples darken to beautiful hues, her breasts grow globular to make milk and the linea nigra darkens into a sexy stomach tattoo. Her hips and buttocks become inviting, her hair and nails grow and her skin glows. She truly becomes a unique creation. The changes from pregnancy are healthy, expected and normal changes.
I remind the expecting woman of this transformation. Even though I can’t prove the anthropological rationale, I believe that the sexuality of pregnancy had a protective purpose. Perhaps in the topless hunting and gathering societies expectant women elicited a certain spell of protection.
The media reflects a lot of image confusion, resulting in pregnant women diminishing their desire to look pregnant. The social image of adopting a lean, masculine-looking body has influenced some pregnant women to try not to have any excess adipose tissue on them after birth. Our lean culture has pregnant women joining the obsession of calorie restriction and adopting eating disorders. This phenomenon has become so common that it must be screened for routinely during the prenatal health history. Superstars and models brag to the media about how much they exercise and the expertise of their personal trainers, who helped them reach their size two by their tenth postpartum day.
Breastfeeding also is rarely mentioned as the optimum food choice in these articles. This type of advertisement perpetuates the negative stereotype of pregnancy as unattractive and something to be battled.
As a midwife, I remind women and their partners that being round and softly firm during pregnancy is attractive and sexy. I recently read that babies who lie between their mothers’ breasts after birth and during the postpartum period are less likely to suffer from hypothermia after birth.
I am not advocating that pregnant women gain excessive weight, but having small stores of fat on the body has physiological benefits. These stores of fat provide natural energy during the birth process when the body needs extra energy. The extra fat is also a protection for a mother’s milk supply. Adipose stores help new mothers take care of their newborns during the postpartum period. This extra fat provides nutrients in the form of calories that aid the new motherhood in caring for her infant and herself, helping to reduce total exhaustion in this fragile period of new motherhood.
It is critical that midwives counteract the poor self-image that many pregnant and new mothers experience. We need to remind these women of their beauty. We also need to remind them that after birth, it is normal to still look five months pregnant and that resuming one’s pre-pregnancy weight can take 6–12 months and sometimes longer. We especially need to educate fathers and family members about this fact, to keep the pressure off the mother. This is a good time to reiterate how breastfeeding helps to restore the body’s shape.
Over the last three decades I have taught other midwives, expecting couples and communities to honor the sensuality of pregnancy, to re-normalize birth and envision breastfeeding as a healthy sexual function.
During my personal journey to become a midwife, I remember my midwife mentors showing such respect and awe for the pregnant body. They taught me to see the simplest details of the pregnant body as a miracle and attractive. I believe that to support this philosophy of the sensuality of pregnancy we need to witness the entire pregnancy experience in its completion as art, and thus separate the woman from her birth. The woman and her birth are two separate entities rolled into one. Protecting the birthing woman’s identity and individuality is an important strategy to re-claim the sensual place of pregnancy and birth.
To support women-led births we must celebrate the beauty, sacredness and sexuality of pregnancy. Midwifery has taught me that birth is beauty in its most primal and intimate form. During the birth process, with a woman’s nudity, with shining breasts and the human smell of life emerging, I feel no shame—only wonder and admiration.
After each birth, I see women transformed as goddesses. But maybe only a midwife can see this.
Shafia M. Monroe is a mother, midwife and author, and speaks professionally to promote midwifery to reduce infant mortality. She is the founder of the annual Black Midwives and Healers Conference and trains Diva Doulas. Visit www.sistahmidwife.com.
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